The Value of Church History

By Don Clements

I went to the doctor’s office the other day to seek treatment for a sinus infection. I get them every winter and all I needed was a prescription for an antibiotic.

My regular family practice doctor was in Africa on a mission’s trip. So I had to see a fresh-caught Physicians Assistant. She walked into the room, and as far as she was concerned, I was a blank page. She didn’t know me from the man in the moon. After making some small talk, during which she determined I’d been a patient at this particular group practice for over 10 years, she turned on the computer in the examining room. A few clicks and – Voila’! – she had my medical history for the past 10 years. See? There is a lot of value in history – I got my antibiotic!!

The website of Tulane University’s History Department has a very good description of the value of history. You can read the full definition at http://history.tulane.edu/

In our search for meaning, we examine the meanings that others found. In our contemplation of the historical record, we encounter a broader spectrum of human behavior and values than that which we encounter in our own everyday lives. In doing so, we may develop a wiser understanding of who we are, of what potential we have, of what dangers threaten individuals, families, communities, and nations, and finally what we see as the meaning of life.


But our topic is Church history. We can’t just turn on the computer and learn 10 or 100 or 1000 years of church history, can we? Well, yes we can – but I’m not sure how much of it is of great value to us. Certainly ministers of the Word who attend seminary have to take Church history classes. But not everyone needs that much. Besides, who’s got the time?

One facet of Church history that I have found very useful for my needs was that, immediately upon arrival at a new church, I would dig out all the old Session minutes and read them, at least those for the past thirty years. Amazing what you can learn about a church just from reading all those dusty old Session record books.

But there are aspects of Church history that are of value to just about every church member, at least to those in leadership and teaching positions. One of my favorite pastimes over the years has been reading biographies. Lot’s of people like reading biographies and never realize that they are reading history books. Particularly in the past few years when I have not been preaching regularly and had more time for things of interest, I have made it a practice to try to have at least one biography on my reading table at all times.

But what about Church history in general? Does it matter if I know all that stuff about Martin Luther and John Knox? Does it matter if I know what has happened in the PCA for the past 30 plus years? All I really care about is my own local church and my own personal ministry – and I just don’t have time to worry about all that other stuff. Let me suggest that “all that other stuff” is part and parcel of what ultimately produced your local church, and for that matter, most likely your individual ministry.

Suppose you are a Sunday school teacher? Do you even know who invented Sunday school? And what its original purpose was supposed to be? Perhaps you could better evaluate your ministry by studying the history of John and Charles Wesley and the Methodist movement from which our modern Sunday school design has evolved over the years.

Let’s stick with the Sunday school teacher illustration for a while. What about your curriculum? Where did it come from? Why is it set up the way it is? Why does it teach the specific things it teaches? The lessons here could greatly affect your teaching. To learn the early history of GCP materials, if that is what you are using, and to learn the battles that the men and women who originally formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church had to go through when they left the liberal Northern Presbyterian Church in the 1930′s and their immediate need to find Biblically based Christian Education materials, you would be thrilled.

Or have you ever heard how GCP went through years of financial struggle and was near to closing their doors when they approached the PCA to ask us to join in a cooperative agreement to keep the presses running?

How about your local church? Does it have a history? Does that history have any effect on you and your family? How has your church history shaped the way it deals with members, on what the preaching from the pulpit is like, how the church is organized, and dozens of other things affecting the church in so many ways that many of us never see? Your church did not just appear one day. It became the way it is today because of events that happened in the past. And those events are what we call church history.

Every individual church has a history. Many of them are written down. Check around and see if you can find yours. If not, check with the PCA Historian at http://www.pcahistory.org/.

And every Presbyterian church has a broader history. The PCA is less than 35 years old, so our history is pretty short. But we will be celebrating the Tri-Centennial of the founding of the first Presbytery in the colonies that became the “good ole US of A”. Wow, a lot of history there. And perhaps a lot of it won’t apply to your particular church. But there are certainly parts of all that history that are important. Where did your church come from? Was it from the old Southern Presbyterian Church or the old Northern Presbyterian Church or from some other small group of Presbyterians? In that history you’ll find a lot of answers to that list of questions I just asked a bit ago.

Perhaps you are part of a much younger congregation formed after the PCA was founded. What was the history of its founding? Why did the leadership back then decide to unite with the PCA? That history will also answer a lot of those questions. You see, past decisions and past events in your church have developed into a story all their own, a history of your church. Likewise, past decisions and past events in the PCA have developed a history of the denomination.

When I was a student at Covenant Seminary, Dr. Will Barker became our Dean of faculty and Professor of Church History. I was in his classroom on his first day of teaching. As he went around the room that first day, he asked each of us to introduce ourselves briefly, especially telling a bit about our background and studies in the field of history.

When it came to my turn, I said something like this: “I have had 3 hours of Western Civ and 3 hours of History of the Old South and they were probably the two most useless classes I ever had as an undergrad!” With that pleasant, comforting smile that is invariably on Will’s face, he said something like, “Well, Mr. Clements, I’ll consider that a challenge to make this one of the most important classes you will have!”

And, wouldn’t you know it, I can honestly say it may have been exactly that – the most important class of my seminary education. It certainly was one of the prime factors that led me to understand the Reformed Faith. You see, learning a little Church history, gives you perspective, from which you can even better understand your church’s doctrine and beliefs.

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